(AP)The opportunity was there for Josh Hamilton.
In the very first inning, he was gift-wrapped a first and third situation that could have put himself and the Texas Rangers back on track to another extended postseason run.
That crucial at-bat didn't last long, though, because after just one pitch the bases were clear. No, not because Hamilton had cracked a three-run homer off Joe Saunders, but rather the all-star outfielder had rolled into another feeble 4-6-3 double play that killed a rally.
That was just the beginning of a night that could not have gone any worse or been less productive for Hamilton or his Rangers, whose season ended with a disappointing 5-1 loss to the Orioles.
That's by no means an exaggeration, either. One pitch, two outs his first time up. His second at-bat was a three-pitch strikeout. The third was a one-pitch ground out to the pitcher. He then finished the evening — and likely his Rangers' tenure — with another three-pitch strikeout representing the tying run in the eighth. That one drew the loudest boos of the entire game from a very ornery 46,931 at the Ballpark in Arlington.
The only thing he didn't do wrong was commit an error in the field, but that was taken care of on Wednesday when his misjudgment of Yoenis Cespedes' fly ball and questionable effort punctuated the Rangers late-season collapse in the American League West. And when you factor in the entire nine-game stretch in which Texas blew their five-game division lead, it gets even uglier for Hamilton. During that time frame, he hit only .256 with 0 home runs, 0 walks and 17 strikeouts.
I'm sure I could if I thought about it long enough, but offhand I can't think of a worse ending to a season for a guy who at times during that season was untouchable. A guy pitchers wanted absolutely no part of. A guy who seemed to be a lock for MVP and a Triple Crown threat. He just lost it. On every possible level, Hamilton came up short when his team needed him the most. And now he's going into free agency with far more questions than good answers.
Questions about his health. Questions about his attitude. Questions about his effort on the field. This seems to go beyond the vision problems he missed time with in September, but how much deeper only Josh Hamilton knows for sure.
Of course, with all of those things said and questions asked, Hamilton is still in line for a healthy payday this offseason. There's no question about that. There's also little question that payday won't come from the Rangers. But it will be interesting to see which suitors are the most aggressive once they get to sit down with Hamilton and go through the courting process. And even more interesting than that will be where Hamilton feels he'll be most comfortable attempting to regain his superstar form and all-star status in 2013.